The Limits of Letters: 10 Colleges With Innovative Grading Systems


Designing a system to evaluate student progress in a useful, accountable, and encouraging way is a difficult problem. The old A through F system, still in place in most academic settings, has lost some credibility in recent years due to the widespread scourge of “grade inflation.” The most recent statistics show that of the grades given at American colleges, 43% are now A’s. It’s easy to blame instructors, but they’re under constant pressure from all sides: the politically besieged and budget-cut bureaucracies they work for, the (often rather entitled-seeming) kids they attempt to educate, as well as the parents (each one of them convinced their offspring is a special snowflake and possibly the next Einstein). Looking at it from the opposite point of view, parents and students have every reason to agitate over grades: it can seem as if a student’s whole future is riding on them. This occasionally even has some truth to it. So students pull all-nighters, ask for extensions, beg, plead, and cajole. How do we stop the madness? Might it not be better to radically rethink the whole idea of grading? Here are 10 iconoclastic schools that think so:

  1. Evergreen State College

    Located in Olympia, Wash., this freethinking institution has always shunned traditional grading rubrics since its founding in 1967. In place of any letter grades, students receive written evaluations from professors at the conclusion of each quarter.

  2. Hampshire College

    Hampshire College, a liberal arts school in Amherst, Mass., is especially well known in the arts, and its graduates include actor Liev Schreiber and directors Barry Sonnenfeld and Ken Burns. Hampshire also chooses to embrace an alternative educational philosophy, foregoing the traditional GPA for narrative evaluations.

  3. Goddard College

    Goddard is located in Plainfield, Vt., though it’s opening a second campus in Washington state, making it a bicoastal liberal arts college with a very progressive pedagogical agenda. Students design their own curricula and receive narrative transcripts rather than letter grades.

  4. Antioch University

    Antioch University has five campuses: in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Calif.; in Seattle, Wash.; in Yellow Springs, Ohio; and in Keene, N.H. The Yellow Springs campus was the first, starting out as Antioch College, founded in 1852 by education reformer (and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brother-in-law) Horace Mann. Mann believed in teaching both liberal arts and science, to both men and women, and did not favor grades. Today students receive written evaluations along with a CR or NC, for credit or no credit. The latter is the equivalent of anything below a C.

  5. New College of Florida

    New College of Florida isn’t that much of an upstart, having been founded in 1960, but this state-run honors college maintains its independent streak. Students negotiate contracts of expectations for each term in consultation with professors, do independent studies in January, prepare a senior thesis, and receive narrative evaluations in place of grades.

  6. Brown University

    The only Ivy League school on this list, Brown is sometimes the victim of some confusion regarding its innovative grading policy. There are in fact letter grades at Brown, but they are optional: any class can be taken pass/fail, which at Brown is called S/NC (satisfactory or no credit). Even if you do choose to receive “normal” grades for a course, only A, B, and C are given; no pluses and minuses or D’s or F’s are recorded.

  7. Bennington College

    Grades are also optional at this liberal arts college in Bennington, Vt. They suggest that you do so for at least two years’ worth of classes, in order to smooth over the graduate school admissions process (which can be confusing, a major stumbling block for colleges that want to experiment with alternative grading).

  8. Alverno College

    Alverno is a Catholic women’s college in Milwaukee, Wis. Rather than giving grades, they choose to track student progress in a more individualized way, considering a “narrative transcript” more meaningful and valuable than a GPA.

  9. Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies

    This liberal arts college, which exists within Western Washington University, is a place for students to “develop critical thinking skills while making connections between several academic disciplines.” Rather than a letter-grading system, Fairhaven prefers to use a narrative evaluation method it describes as being like an “academic autobiography.”

  10. Sarah Lawrence College

    Sarah Lawrence, founded in Westchester County, N.Y. in 1928, used to give no grades at all. Now it does “for external purposes” (like the grad school admissions mentioned above) but deemphasizes them as much as possible on campus. A similar approach is taken by Reed College in Portland, Ore., which happens to have an exchange program with Sarah Lawrence as well.

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